It was finals time in my first semester of my freshman year at college. As I left for the first of many, I said to my roommate, “Wish me luck!” She answered with, “I’m gonna do more than that. I’m gonna pray for you.” Agnostic though I am, it made me feel good. Why is that, I wondered?
Prayer didn’t mean much to me — it would never have occurred to me to tell someone I was praying for them. But it meant something to her. It was extra. It was beyond wishing. And she was going to do it on my behalf. I appreciated the gesture and even drew a little comfort from it.
Prayer and I have a complicated relationship — I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I regard it with a mix of condescension, skepticism, and respect. “Pfft. Like PRAYING is gonna help make something happen,” to “Wow. Look at the comfort and peace she gets from prayer.” Of course, this was based on which type of prayer I considered the “right” kind.
In terribly oversimplified terms, I’m dismissive of praying to something/someone, and respectful praying for something/someone. That part of me has not really changed. What has changed is how so many of the people I used to put into the first category, I’d now put into the second.
Thankfully, as I’ve aged, I’ve become less judgmental. As recently as when Tim Tebow was news, I remember thinking, “What a moron. As if God really had anything to do with that touchdown run.” Given how little I know about him, though, I’ve changed my view a bit. Maybe he wasn’t literally thanking God for helping him make that touchdown pass. Maybe he wasn’t thinking, “Gee, with all the poverty, war and rape in the world, you chose to make it so *I* could score those points? Thanks, God — you sure are swell!”
I began to question my attitude. Maybe he was thanking whatever forces in the universe combined to make that moment possible, and he just happens to call it "God." Maybe that’s what most people are doing when they bow or pray or whatever they do. Perhaps more people regard God as a metaphor than I give them credit for. I can get behind that. (I say that realizing that probably no one cares what I think of their praying — I’m just navel-gazing, here.)
Yet, why can’t I say I pray? I’m all about brevity and tight writing. Why do I feel compelled, when a friend posts on Facebook that someone’s in dire straits, and requesting prayers, to write back, “Sending positive medical karma” or “Sending good juju your way”? It’s certainly more concise to say, “Prayers sent.”
It’s for two reasons, both of which I know are highly flawed, but I’m being honest.
1. I don’t want to be perceived as falling into the “wrong” category of pray-ers. Let’s face it. So many leaders use prayer (and religion) for evil rather than for good. They prey on ignorance, stupidity and fear. They count on us taking them literally and not asking questions. It is restrictive and defeating. In no way do I want to be associated with them and/or those who follow them.
2. Conversely, I don’t want to insult the “right” category of pray-ers. The ones who have “earned” the right to say they pray. Those who have studied. Converted. Seen, through religion, a path towards greater good. Those who use religion to lift up their lives and the lives of others, rather than as a tool for oppression and silencing. Those who see religion as a bridge rather than as a fence. By saying I pray (or am sending prayers,) am I watering down what prayer is for them?
What’s flawed in my thinking is the notion that these are the only types of praying and/or religious people. Also flawed is the notion that how I do or don’t pray has any impact whatsoever on the power prayer has on people in either of the above categories.
So, what’s my reaction when I see someone reaching out for prayers of others? I stop for a minute. I really try to feel their pain. I expend some energy wishing and hoping with all my heart and soul that somehow their burden is eased. Some might call that praying, though I’m not there, yet. More often now, though, instead of answering with, “Sending positive thoughts your way” or “Sending love and light” when someone asks for prayers, I will answer with “Done.”